“Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God,” these words of Elizabeth Browning are painted above the archway of the room where we eat, overlooking the flower strewn yard where I now sit in my wheelchair next to a sleeping Kai, my mind constantly distracted from the focused tasks of reading and writing by the breeze grazing my hair, the sound of whispering leaves, distant lawnmowers, and bird song.
My undeserved bounty humbles me. Any complaints I may have about my lot I acknowledge as truly petty and privileged first world chronic illness bits of unnecessary whining, irritability, or impatience.
On the other hand, the poor man, crippled by pain as he propels his simple wheeled board, with U-shaped metal bars to protect his hands, along a crowded city street, and hoping for enough beggared coins to help his family get by for another few days, is an obvious and deserving recipient of compassion and generosity.
But, in the face of life’s true facts, we are equals. Both born to live and to die, to laugh, to cry, to sing, and to sigh. And each of us then has the same possibilities of using our life circumstances to be and to breathe. I use these extremes simply to make the point that the differences in the situations of one or another reader of these thoughts are not likely to be as great as we imagine.
A favorite phrase of mine first used by Freud a century ago is “the narcissism of small differences.” He observed that our friends, peers, members of our social groups are in fact so fundamentally similar that we highlight the slightest ways we differ from each other to accentuate our “specialness,” often ignoring the possibly greater ways we are not like some others.
One example might be how some German Jews thought themselves superior to Shtetl Jews though all eventually suffered the same fate. Another is the social ranking that some African-American formerly gave each other based on pigmentation. A third is the attitude of a few “progressives” who refuse to vote for the Democratic nominee despite the rationally undisputable gap between her and Trump.
And so who am I to be bummed out for more than a moment that I have an illness and you do not. The philosopher Gurdjieff suggested that when we are overwhelmed by inner or outer suffering or we have lost the thread of attention and presence we have reached “the limit of our being.”
What being is that I often wondered. It is, I think, human being. Lost in daydream or comparison, envy or pride, pleasure or tears, the difference between me and Kai or a tree or a boulder is very small indeed. A narcissistic thing, for that time neither a man not woman. And now we and our family face as ever the limits of our beings–Sheila a newly broken rib, Kai a nippy 3 month. And so far, I think, we are usually quite human.